Wednesday, July 1, 2009

As Burma Draws Fire, Asean Gets Burned

Burmese Minister of Foreign Affairs MajGen Nyan Win, center (in front of blonde lady), is seen standing among other heads of delegations at the 9th Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Hanoi in May. (Photo: AFP)

The Irrawaddy News
JULY, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.4

Asean leaders forge a tougher policy aimed at speaking the truth to Burma’s military government, but the generals fire back in words and armed clashes against ethnic Karen along the border

A mistake should not be repeated but in the case of Burma, mistakes are endless.

When leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) admitted Burma into its regional grouping, newspapers and magazines, including this one, expressed strong reservations. Why?

The simple fact is that Burma was not yet ready to join the regional club unless Asean was willing to serve as a shield, in effect giving political cover to one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

It’s sad to say that to this day Burma membership has been a disaster, creating a constant headache for Asean members who have increasingly been concerned with the question of their own credibility.

Ironically, the original goal of taming Burma by admitting the pariah state to the regional club has only further damaged the grouping’s reputation. Burma is not even up to the “Asean standard” of supporting authoritarian rulers by maintaining stability and promoting economic prosperity.

Needless to say, Burma has remained a major source of concern as regime leaders recently detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi inside the notorious Insein Prison, ignoring the outcry of regional leaders and the international community.

If Burmese leaders are finding it difficult to find excuses to confine the Lady of the Lake, Asean leaders also are facing a dilemma: how to nurture the rogue regime into democratic reconciliation.

Asean has no one to blame but itself for making a hasty decision to admit Burma in 1997 before the junta had made any genuine political progress at home.

Why such haste? one excuse Asean leaders cited was that if they delayed admission, Burma would fall into China’s sphere of influence.

Even the Chinese leaders—who quietly criticized Burmese officials at the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem) held in Hanoi in May—are expressing deep frustration with the generals. The Chinese typically exercised cautious and quiet diplomacy when they conveyed the message to Burma’s leaders—but whenever Burma commits major diplomatic blunders, it always shuts the door, unwilling to listen even to its biggest neighbor.

It is true that Asean has paid a high price by admitting Burma. The once respected Asean has lost influence and become a subject of derision for its continuous support of the junta.

Asean leaders have failed to perform due diligence. Only now, with the latest incarceration of Suu Kyi, do they seem to have learned the importance of delivering a more realistic, tougher message to Burma in unison. Most embarrassed Asean leaders no longer shy away from speaking out on Burma.

Recently, Thailand’s prime minister and foreign minister were joined by Singapore and other original founders of Asean to pour scorn on Burma for staging the bizarre Suu Kyi trial, demanding her release and that of all political prisoners.

In Hanoi, Asean and its European partners issued a statement also calling for the lifting of restrictions placed on Burmese political parties.

Speaking to the Far Eastern Economic Review, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva said that if the junta fails to release Suu Kyi, Asean’s credibility will be “affected inevitably,” adding that Burma’s political process must be inclusive to gain the respect of the international community.

“Thailand, as the Asean chair, expresses grave concern about recent developments relating to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, given her fragile health. In this connection, the Government of the Union of Myanmar is reminded that the Asean leaders had called for the immediate release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” Abhisit said.

But Asean alone should not be blamed for Burma’s failure, said the prime minister, who himself was facing credibility problems at home after Thailand cancelled a regional Asean summit due to political unrest. Even so, he said, “I think it would be unfair to single out Asean. I think the whole international community puts in an effort and if it’s not succeeding, why single out Asean?”

When pressed about Thailand’s business dealings and energy dependency on Burma, he replied, “We’re neighbors, and there is clearly an energy link, but having said that, there is a lot of Western business presence in Myanmar [Burma]. Again, we share a long common border and there’s a lot of border trade too, and the energy that we buy from Myanmar is the same as we buy from our neighbors. And we have to make sure that we ensure our people have enough energy and security. So I don’t think it’s particularly surprising or special, and it wouldn’t in any way detract us from the goal that we would like to see Myanmar succeeding in her political transition.”

Thailand and two other Asean partners, Singapore and Malaysia, are major trading partners of Burma. Thailand heavily depends on Burma’s gas, cheap migrant labor and natural resources. Singapore is a haven for the regime leaders and family members to visit and receive medical care.

Thailand’s more pragmatic, tougher support for Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate is a direct result of the Democrat-led government now in power in Thailand.

Imagine if former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra or Samak Sundaravej were in power. The Suu Kyi trial would have received little attention from Thailand. Instead, the generals would probably have received a tacit blessing from Thai politicians and army leaders, many of whom have a history of cozy business ties with the Than Shwe regime.

With Abhisit, Burma was forced to revert to its neighborhood bully role, engaging in a war of words, telling Thailand in state-run newspapers to mind its own business and not to interfere in Burma’s internal affairs.

“Actually, it is Thailand that needs to forge national reconciliation,” Burma’s Deputy Foreign Minister Maung Myint mused. “Thailand saw year-long demonstrations in which different groups in red, yellow and blue made an attempt to oust the government and jeopardize the Asean Summit.”

But for the generals words alone were not enough, and actions followed.

Troops of the military regime and its ceasefire group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, launched an unusual rainy season offensive with about 9,000 soldiers against the Karen rebel army and civilians in early June.

Armed clashes forced at least 4,000 Karen refugees to flee their villages and many are still arriving in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. The message was clear: don’t mess with Burma.

Then Goh Chok Tong, Singapore’s senior minister, flew to Burma with a message.

In meetings with the top brass, Goh acknowledged that the Suu Kyi trial is a domestic affair, but he pointed out that there is an international dimension to it that should not be ignored.

Goh stressed that the 2010 elections must be inclusive and that the opposition NLD party led by Suu Kyi must be part of the process of national reconciliation.

Goh is the first foreign leader to meet Than Shwe since the trial started, and he used the occasion to deliver a political message to the top leaders in Naypyidaw, saying, “I don’t believe any Singapore investors would come in a big way before the picture is clear, before this move to democracy is seen to produce results.”

Singapore is one of the biggest foreign investors in Burma, with annual bilateral trade of more than US $1 billion.

Burma did not blast Singapore. Instead Goh was given the red carpet treatment during his four-day trip. Is there any meaning behind that? Maybe not, but many Burmese analysts believe Goh’s message carried more weight than those from other Asean nations.

Goh, Abhisit Vejajjiva and Asean leaders performed well on the Suu Kyi trial—making a major departure from the old hands-off, “non-interference” policy.

But it’s still doubtful Than Shwe will listen, knowing full well that Asean has its own weaknesses.

The regime leaders remain defiant and shameless. After killing monks and peaceful demonstrators in September 2007, the Burmese regime signed the new Asean Charter. In 2008, the regime launched a massive crackdown on prominent activists and opposition leaders—the number of political prisoners jailed increased by the hundreds—and Asean was silent.

Thai professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak warned in the Bangkok Post: “Burma is currently in flagrant and fundamental violation of the Asean Charter’s Section 7 of Article 1 on democracy, good governance and the rule of law and the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Failure to redress this violation will render the Charter a travesty of regional community objectives and dilute Asean’s relevance on the broader international stage.”

The Suu Kyi trial and the imprisonment of the political opposition are just the tip of the iceberg.

Than Shwe has his own grandiose dream of setting Burma on a new course. The closer relations between Burma and North Korea are one example and a major cause of concern.

Burma recently hosted an event marking the 45th anniversary of the date when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il joined the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).

Htay Oo, the secretary-general of the junta’s mass organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), addressed an assembled audience at the Burmese event, effusing: “One of the feats performed by Kim Jong Il in leading the Party and revolution to a shining victory, shouldering upon himself the destiny of the country and nation is that he has strengthened and developed the WPK into a guiding force of the Songun revolution.”

“Songun” is North Korea’s “Military First” policy that grants the Korean People’s Army a leading role in the affairs of state and allocates national resources to the army before civilians.

Burma’s shady military ties with North Korea and the persistent rumors of Burma’s nuclear ambition, plus the building of tunnels in central Burma and Shan State, could become Asean’s next headache.

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